"Fitzcarraldo," Werner Herzog's long-awaited Peruvian adventure, is a bungle in the jungle, a film run amok, muddled and muddy.
It flows smoothly enough at first, but after a few minor snags Herzog runs aground on his central metaphor: Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) gets some Jivaro headhunters to drag a 350-ton steamboat over a mountain to the river on the other side, putting him within reach of a fortune in rubber trees.
The Irish entrepreneur is obsessed with building an opera house for his hero, Caruso, and figures that the rubber money can make this dream come true. Since Fitzcarraldo never goes anywhere without his scratchy records and gramophone, Verdi mixes with the beat beat of the tomtom as they move up the Amazon.
Kinski isn't up to the part, relinquished by Jason Robards when he came down with amoebic dysentery. Obviously, Robards would have made a more believable Irishman than Herzog's favorite Visigoth. What's worse, Kinski doesn't seem as much mad as grumpy -- only natural considering the conditions under which "Fitzcarraldo" was filmed.
Kinski's tropical travails came to light in "Burden of Dreams," a documentary on the making of "Fitzcarraldo," commissioned when Herzog thought he'd never finish his film. The most interesting part of "Burden," the heroic portage, proves the most stultifying segment of the feature film. Herzog apparently couldn't bear to edit.
It's here, too, that Herzog becomes a Great White Father. He laments the acculturation of the native people, that they and he must live in "a world without lions." Ironically, the Jivaro he over-shoots for posterity are really Campas Indians with painted faces, decidedly confused and uncomfortable on camera.
If only the camera had cared as much for the warm, willing Claudia Cardinale as Fitz's lover, Molly, a madam who lends him the money for the boat and crew. The mystery is that the lovely Molly would throw money away on this filthy towhead. None of the other rubber barons would.
Fitz hires a nearsighted captain (Paul Hittscher) who knows the Amazon better than Mark Twain knew the Mississippi. He navigates by tasting the river water and by distinguishing reality from hallucination.
The Jivaro, says the captain, believe that real time is an illusion behind which lies a reality of dreams. And the boat floating past misty, verdant banks is the stuff of sleep time. There's mystery here, but Herzog, no Carlos Casta?neda, hasn't penetrated it.
As the Jivaro pull his ship up the mountain, Fitzcarraldo, formerly a failure in the ice business, gives the chief a large chunk of ice. "Should we tell him nothing remains?" asks Fitzcarraldo.
Should we tell Herzog? FITZCARRALDO -- At the Avalon.